Letter from the Sea of Cortez — From the August 2013 issue

Emptying the World’s Aquarium

The dismal future of the global fishery

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Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, the “Aquarium of the World,” citing both its extraordinary variety of life and its accessible bounty. In many ways, the sprawling sea is the world’s ocean writ small. The west is deep and rocky; the east, shallow and sandy. In the Upper Gulf, temperatures can swing from chilly in the winter to hot and tropical in the summer. The water is crystal clear in some places, murky in others. It hosts an astounding 950 fish species, 10 percent of which are found nowhere else in the world, including the world’s most endangered marine mammal — a diminutive porpoise called the vaquita (“little cow”).

This very abundance, of course, has ensured the Sea of Cortez a key role in Mexico’s economy. It supports 80 percent of the nation’s commercial fishing and almost 90 percent of its shrimp catch, and directly employs 60,000 people. Fishermen working the sea’s 26,000 boats are both rich and poor, newcomers and inheritors of thousands of years of tradition. The sea is perfectly situated to supply the hungriest markets — the United States, Japan, and now China — and over the past few decades it has seen one of the world’s largest drops in biomass. Eighty-five percent of its species either are being fished at their maximum or are overexploited. Consequently, there is no better place on earth to look at the future of global fishing and the crisis facing the oceans.

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is a science writer based in Mexico City. His work on this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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